Kadyrov’s MMA Soldier: How a UFC debutant became one of the most feared men in Chechnya

Over the past few months, Ramzan Kadyrov’s influence over mixed martial arts has been a topic of growing significance within the sport’s landscape. Mainstream…

By: Karim Zidan | 6 years ago
Kadyrov’s MMA Soldier: How a UFC debutant became one of the most feared men in Chechnya
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Over the past few months, Ramzan Kadyrov’s influence over mixed martial arts has been a topic of growing significance within the sport’s landscape. Mainstream outlets have begun to investigate the Chechen leader’s strategic interest in sports, which includes a MMA promotion that has produced three current UFC fighters. On Saturday September 2nd, the final of Kadyrov’s current crop of UFC competitors will make his promotional debut in Rotterdam.

Prior to the proliferation of mixed martial arts events and promotions in Russia over the past couple of years, there were few places for upcoming fighters to gain experience. Apart from M-1 Global and Pro FC, no other promotion was hosting consistent events to any significant coverage until 2013. Abdul-Kerim Edilov, who debuted in 2010, was one of the fighters who competed for seven different promotions in the first three years of his career.

Yet, while the 25-year-old light-heavyweight compiled a mediocre 6-4 record between his debut in March 2010 and his most recent loss in April 2013, a noticeable shift occurred when he began competing on home soil in Grozny, Chechnya. Starting with the Cage Warriors 58 event in August 2013, Edilov assembled a 9-fight win streak that saw him gain prospect status, and later become one of the most recognizable faces in his homeland with the help of Ramzan Kadyrov.

While Kadyrov did not found his Akhmat MMA promotion until late 2014 (first event in 2015), the influx of MMA events in the Chechen Republic commenced in 2013 when the dictator began showing interest in the sport. Kadyrov decided to dabble in MMA events by sponsoring other promotions willing to venture into Grozny.

Fight Nights, a Russian promotion that has grown exponentially over the past couple of years, hosted an event titled “The Battle of Terek,” which referenced a historical battle between Emir Timur (Tamerlane) and the Golden Horde army of Khan Tokhtamysh. The event featured several fighters who would go on to represent Kadyrov’s personal MMA team, including Khusein Khaliev, Shamil Zavurov, and Abdul-Kerim Edilov.

Each of the aforementioned fighters has since seen a significant upturn in their economic status. Each had been gifted luxury vehicles by Kadyrov following victories and are paid monthly stipends to train fulltime in the 8000 square meter Akhmat MMA facility. Once impoverished – refugees of war, in some cases – MMA under Kadyrov brought newfound social mobility previously unattainable for the majority of fighters from the North Caucasus. Edilov, on the other hand, benefited not only from his position as a athlete representing Chechnya, but also from nepotism because of paternal blood ties to Kadyrov’s clan (teip).

Abdul-Kerim Edilov’s Instagram

Kadyrov himself revealed that up to 70 men from his clan currently occupy ministerial and military positions in Chechnya. However, his influence extends further, as he also placed trusted clansmen in judicial positions, as well as at the helm of his MMA venture. Already related to Kadyrov, Edilov was a natural selection as one of the blueprint fighters for Akhmat MMA.

Edilov competed on the inaugural Akhmat MMA event (WFCA 1) in March 2015, where he defeated journeyman Tiago Monaco Tosato in less than three minutes during the evening’s main event. He was rewarded with a hug from Kadyrov, who entered the ring in Akhmat gear accompanied by his three sons and kickboxing great Badr Hari.

A second, more emphatic victory at WFCA 3 ensured his place amid Kadyrov’s favorite fighters. He was regularly featured on the Chechen leader’s social media accounts, including his infamous Instagram page, which helped Edilov become a household name in Chechnya. A large mural of a smiling Edilov standing arm-in-arm with Kadyrov is featured prominently within the Akhmat facility.

Edilov’s status among the Chechen elite was elevated further in October 2015 when the light-heavyweight prospect officially signed with the UFC. He did so after agreeing to have Dominance MMA’s Ali Abdel-Aziz – the only UFC manager with a working relationship with Kadyrov – represent him as his manager.

Edilov was the first Chechen representative of Kadyrov’s regime to sign with the sport’s most recognizable promotion (Ruslan Magomedov, a Dagestani heavyweight, had signed with Akhmat MMA years after joining the UFC). It was a significant coup for Kadyrov, who uses athletic achievements to fuel his regime’s propaganda machine.

However, Kadyrov had to wait a little longer to witness one of his homegrown fighters compete inside the UFC Octagon. Edilov, who was expected to compete in early 2016, was suspended for an anti-doping violation before ever making his debut. The Chechen fighter was handed a 15-month suspension by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) after he tested positive for meldonium, a prohibited substance, in an out-of-competition drug test in January 2016. USADA granted Edilov a reduced suspension after investigating his claim that the substance was being used for medical purposes.

Sidelined for the better part of two years, Edilov focused instead on working his way into Kadyrov’s trusted inner circle as a faithful servant of the Chechen president’s family.

Custodian of the Kadyrov Princelings

In late 2016, Kadyrov hosted an MMA event to celebrate his 40th birthday. As part of the celebration, the WFCA promotion placed the dictator’s three sons – 11-year-old Akhmad, 9-year-old Zelimkhan, and 8-year-old Adam – in featured bouts on a fight card that broadcast across the Russian Federation.

While the heaviest of the Kadyrov princelings weighed no more than 37kg, they fought with confidence and experience that preceded their age. Akhmad, the youngest child named after the Chechen leader’s assassinated father, won by technical knockout following a perfectly timed liver shot that left his opponent withering in pain on the canvas. Seated in his raised dais in the arena, Kadyrov celebrated his offspring’s violent display. Outside of Chechnya, however, few others were celebrating the display of dynastic propaganda.

The event, which the regulatory body overseeing MMA in Russia later deemed illegal, drew heavy criticism from the Russian media, as well as from legendary heavyweight and Russian MMA Union president Fedor Emelianenko, who condemned it as “unjustifiable” and irreparably harmful to the well being of developing children.

Emelianenko’s criticism yielded abusive responses from Kadyrov, as well as the Akhmat MMA team. One of the first fighters to respond to Fedor was Edilov, who personally trained Kadyrov’s children for their MMA debuts. Edilov took to Instagram to explain that Emelianenko’s comments were due to “envy” and a “drunken state.” Others like State Duma representative Adam Delimkhanov went a step further and threatened Emelianenko, stating that he “will be held responsible for his words against Kadyrov’s children.”

Yet, while the child MMA fights in Grozny last year highlighted the extent Kadyrov will use sports to instill his vision of a hyper-masculine society rooted in prize-fighting, it also gave MMA fans some insight into how Edilov occupied his time while serving a UFC suspension.

Since the start of his suspension in early 2016, Edilov’s social media feed has been primarily dedicated to various pictures and videos of the fighter caring for Kadyrov’s three young sons. Clips on Instagram show Edilov attending Quran recitation classes with the princelings, teaching them various martial arts techniques in the gym, and even cruising in cars emblazoned with the late Akhmad Kadyrov’s face.

Edilov’s dedication to Kadyrov’s children seems to have earned him favor with the Chechen leader. To celebrate his 25th birthday, the three sons gifted Edilov with a brand new Porsche Panamera valued at over $120,000 USD.

“I received a gift, which I could not have even dreamed about.” Edilov stated on his Instagram page. “I know that I do not deserve this in any way. The presence of Ahmad, Eli and Adam in my life is already the greatest gift! I cannot find the words to express my gratitude to them! I promise to always be around, stand up for them, and be a brother.”

A post shared by @abdul_kerim_k95ra on

Edilov’s improved economic status came with greater responsibility. The UFC fighter also doubled as the princes’ guardian and personal bodyguard, known to intimidate those he deems a threat to Kadyrov’s children. An example of this occurred last month when HBO Real Sports visited Grozny to interview Kadyrov for a segment on combat sports propaganda in Chechnya.

During their first visit to Grozny in May 2017, the HBO Real Sports team were having lunch at an outdoor café in downtown Grozny when they noticed a motorcade pull up nearby. Kadyrov’s three sons emerged from the vehicle with Edilov vigilantly by their side. While the HBO cameras were not rolling footage at the time, correspondent David Scott decided to film the rarely captured scene using his iPhone. Edilov noticed Scott filming the princes and bull-rushed the journalist, demanding that he delete the footage. Scott obliged.

“This was the most intimidating place I’ve ever been,” Scott told Business Insider. “Every man and boy between the ages of 11 to 75 looks like they are about to kick your a–.”

Trouble Brewing for the UFC

Abdul-Kerim Edilov is by no means the first Akhmat MMA fighter to debut in the UFC. Flyweight contender Magomed Bibulatov made his debut earlier this year, and heavyweight Ruslan Magomedov joined Kadyrov’s roster after compiling a 3-0 record in the American promotion. Yet, while Kadyrov’s influence over combat sports continues to expand significantly, the addition of Edilov is particularly disturbing.

Unlike Bibulatov and Magomedov, whom represent Kadyrov’s regime as athletes, Edilov is a member of the warlord’s clan and paternal bloodline. He is also one of the few Akhmat MMA fighters who hold other positions within Kadyrov’s government. Over the past couple of years, he has openly trained Kadyrov’s children to compete in unprotected MMA fights, and has been known to openly threaten and intimidate those who oppose his leader, including journalists and fighters alike.

Kadyrov has already used Edilov’s upcoming debut for his own personal gain. He hosted an open workout session for the fighter earlier this week in Grozny. Footage of the event was broadcast on Chechen television, as well as on Kadyrov’s social media accounts with the caption: “The Akhmat Fight Club is developing rapidly, has gained wide popularity, and has all the prospects to become one of the best in the world.”

The aforementioned video also shows Edilov being accompanied by a sizeable entourage for his flight to Rotterdam. Among those who travelled with the fighter was Akhmat MMA president Abuzayed Vismuradov, who also commands Chechnya’s Special Forces, a special Chechen SWAT team known as “Terek,” as well as Kadyrov’s private security detail. Fiercely loyal to Kadyrov, Vismuradov is considered one of the most powerful men in Chechnya.

These are the sort of men accompanying Edilov to his UFC debut.

Given the laundry list of concerns surrounding Edilov, the UFC decision to blatantly promote the fighter on an international show highlights the promotion’s disinterest in limiting its association with the ruthless Chechen dictator. Even after renowned mainstream outlets such as HBO’s Real Sports revealed the stunning extent of Kadyrov’s influence over MMA and how he uses it as both a farming system for his military, and as propaganda to cement his authority, the UFC continues to do business with one of the most dangerous men on the planet.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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